RAISE Podcast: Joanna Curtis, University of Memphis

RAISE Podcast Joanna Curtis

We recently sat down for a special episode of the RAISE Podcast featuring Joanna Curtis, Chief Advancement Officer at the University of Memphis. Check out this recap featuring our favorite takeaways from the episode, and how to tune in yourself!


Listen to this episode of the RAISE Podcast, featuring Joanna Curtis.


This podcast is for our listeners who work in advancement and ask themselves, “Is this really what I’m supposed to be doing?”

It’s for anyone hoping to gain upward mobility without having to hop from school to school.

It’s for folks who are curious about how browsing an article in the Chronicle led to a multi-year, multi-million-dollar commitment from a family foundation with zero previous ties to the university.

It’s for those of you who have considered launching an Alumni Career Services program.

It’s for everyone who needs a reminder of how a large, public University can change the face of higher education.

It’s for anyone who prioritizes the “Why?” so that they can crystalize the “How?”

…And, it’s for anyone who wants to amplify your brand ambassadors (students) and launch a student-led podcast that could serve as an incredible stewardship tool. (Come on. Someone has GOT to do this!)

Joanna Curtis, Chief Advancement Officer at the University of Memphis

Joanna has been a guest on her sister’s podcast. Her husband is a journalist who covers the Memphis Grizzlies and is a prolific podcaster. She is also one of the most successful, well-regarded fundraisers and leaders in the advancement space. So, Brent had some big shoes to fill as her podcast host.

Joanna and Brent kick things off by talking about her first higher-ed love, Macalester College. Mac’s internationalism, its claims to prominent alums like Kofi Annan, and its focus on service were alluring enough to keep her close to her hometown of Arden Hills, MN through her undergrad years. Joanna recalls that her “Mac” education focused on molding productive global citizens; students and graduates that would give back to their communities and the world. (After this podcast conversation, we can confidently say that Joanna is doing Macalester proud.)

But, like many liberal arts degrees, Joanna’s studies didn’t align with a clear-cut career path. After a move to Memphis with her husband, she considered becoming an episcopal priest, a cook, or a bookstore and coffee shop owner. Instead, as fate would have it, she found herself working in a fundraising gig for her local library. She learned what the heck “development” meant, cut her teeth during a campaign launch, and got involved with donor committees and boards.

A self-proclaimed introvert, Joanna wasn’t convinced that fundraising was the right fit for her. She confronted the question that nags so many of us at different points throughout our career: “Is this really what I’m supposed to be doing?” So, she took a break. She did some self-study. She took many personality tests and saw a career counselor. (If only Advancement career coach Kris Schafer had been in business 20 years ago!)

Joanna’s search continued to affirm the same results: You should be a fundraiser.

So, fundraise, she did. And she sought out “an organization whose work [she] could spend all day trying to explain the importance of.” Joanna has built an incredibly successful career by embracing her innate skills, leading with authenticity, and giving her time to an organization with a mission she wholeheartedly believes in. 

She did it her way. And her success speaks for itself.

On this episode of the RAISE podcast, Joanna delivers so many useful soundbites, including insight on launching an alumni career services program; budgeting for and building the most effective tech-powered fundraising team (hint: lots of new training of existing staff, rather than adding salary lines); and where to reallocate the money and time saved on events and travel. She also reminds us that while “curating” current campus news and updates for donors is an important element of advancement work, it’s also vital to let your alums get the genuine, unfiltered, behind-the-scenes view, too.

We covered a lot of ground in this episode. And a lot of really cool stories. And some gold-nugget ideas that at least one podcast listener needs to run with. (Tell us if you do!).

Joanna has been honing in on her “Why?” so that she can continually improve her “How?” Thank you, Joanna, for reminding us all to do the same, and for being a stellar RAISE podcast guest.

Want to work with Joanna? University of Memphis is hiring! She can be reached on LinkedIn, and on email at jecurtis@memphis.edu.

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